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'Candid talk' on women in law

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Attorneys Bernadette Catalana and Kelly Odorisi faced jaw-dropping experiences on their paths to success, like being called “cupcake” by a judge, or being told to “act more like a man” when clearly treated differently because of their gender.

Such stories elicited exasperated groans and knowing nods from female lawyers of all ages who recently attended the inaugural presentation of “Candid Talk: Women at the Bar” at Barnes & Thornburg LLP in Indianapolis. The discussion was co-sponsored by Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana’s Women in the Law Division.

“We have wanted to have this conversation for a long time,” Catalana said, opening a frank dialogue on the challenges women face in a profession that’s still largely male-dominated. The discussion ranged from professional skill-building to work/life balance; from how to build a practice to what to wear to court.

For the record, the women said legal fashion faux pas include anything see-through or showing cleavage, club attire, backpacks or clothes that are too short or tight. While most can agree on what’s unacceptable, Odorisi observed that it’s still not unheard of to run into judges, for instance, who object to women wearing pants to court.

“Someone’s going to surprise you with an attitude you don’t expect in this day and age,” Catalana said.

Even young attorneys could relate. Frost Brown Todd LLC lawyers Nicola Mousdicas and Jessica Schnelker, both in their second year of practice, said Catalana’s story of being detained by courthouse security longer than male colleagues resonated with them. They’d both had similar experiences.

“Those things still happen,” Schnelker said.

Mousdicas said the program provided an outlet for conversations that in some contexts remain taboo. The American Bar Association reported that in 2014, women represented 34 percent of the legal profession.

Getting ahead

“Our society does not prize outspoken women,” Catalana said, noting she’d often heard the expectation that women be “sweet, small and quiet. … We overcome that through excellence.”

Odorisi, a Ball State University graduate who is Catalana’s neighbor in Rochester, New York, where both practice, stressed the importance of networking and making contacts that can help develop a book of business.

“You can’t just sit back and wait for this to happen,” Odorisi said. “I cast the net wide.” That included keeping in contact with law school classmates, high school friends, and professionals she met, often outside work. “Find your passion, and get charitable,” she advised.

But networking provides other benefits. Some of her most lucrative matters were those she brought to her former firm and referred to another attorney. “I was being true and honest,” she said. “What (potential clients) don’t like is when you boast and oversell.”

Networking helped Odorisi develop contacts and build a practice in which she handles complex trust settlements throughout New York, formerly with a large firm, and now in her own practice. Catalana is a leading asbestos litigator who serves as mass tort national coordinating counsel for a Fortune 100 client.

Lawyers have a less-than-stellar reputation as marketers, Odorisi observed, and she and Catalana stressed the importance of being genuine, developing a personal business plan and following through. “You have to get cozy with the idea of marketing,” Odorisi said.

They also said it’s crucial that women have at least one trusted friend in whom they can confide – lateral mentors, if you will. Catalana and Odorisi said that’s the relationship they’ve developed.

Can you do it?

Gender Top 10 Tips factboxWhile lawyers strive to make names for themselves, young female attorneys haven’t always embraced their abilities, Catalana said.

She shared a story from law school, which she juggled with raising two toddlers. She had a brilliant male study partner, and she found herself sometimes subjugating her talents to make his shine brighter.

It was only after a professor insisted that she let her better skills come to the fore in an oral advocacy presentation that she agreed. Her study partner nonetheless was crushed, she recalled, and she felt badly because of it.

A few years out of law school, Catalana was faced with a unique career opportunity that she also considered a daunting complex litigation challenge for someone early in her career. She turned to a partner in her firm at the time and asked, “Do you think I can do it?”

Catalana said she got a reality check when the partner replied, “What do you think?” She said at that point she realized she had the skills, but she also realized she lacked the confidence in her own abilities.

“I took ownership and did what needed to be done at the time,” she recalled. “You are not a ‘lawyerette.’ You are a lawyer.”

Barnes & Thornburg management committee member Terri L. Bruksch had worked with Catalana in the past and extended an invitation to her and Odorisi to debut their program at the firm’s Indianapolis headquarters. Bruksch said the program was a rare opportunity.

“In my experience, we don’t often acknowledge there are unique challenges facing women entering the profession,” she said.

Managing expectations

Joyce Thompson was able to meld her passion for sports with her legal training, and she serves as associate director of enforcement for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Sometimes she worries that her confidence might be seen by some as arrogance.

“That is their problem,” Catalana said, as long as Thompson is satisfied with the results of her work.

“It’s very difficult in this profession when you’re trying to be perfect in all aspects,” Odorisi said. That’s particularly true for women who sometimes put themselves last behind family and work.

She recalled a point in her life when she and her husband both were working long hours to establish their careers while raising two children. She reached a point where she said, “I was so stressed out, I was good to no one. … To not feel like you have control over things in life is very difficult.”

She realized she had to rebalance – something that eludes many women who end up leaving the profession.

“This is a hard profession to be in, but it’s worth it,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Kori McOmber chairs DTCI’s Women in the Law Division, which formed last year, and said the presentation was valuable for young lawyers and those who’ve been in the profession a few years.

“Some of the comments that resonated with me had to do with other topics we might want to cover in the future: what to expect when you become a partner, what we can do as a profession to keep women in partnership positions in law firms, how to be a good mentor to younger lawyers,” McOmber said.

It’s a conversation that’s likely to continue.

“What resonated with me the most was just being true to your own self,” Thompson said after the program.•

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  • Women Rule!
    Females now rule over every appellate court in Indiana, and from the federal southern district, as well as at the head of many judicial agencies. Give me a break, ladies! Can we men organize guy-only clubs to tell our sob stories about being too sexy for our shirts and not being picked for appellate court openings? Nope, that would be sexist! Ah modernity, such a ball of confusion. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmRsWdK0PRI

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  1. One can only wonder whether Mr. Kimmel was paid for his work by Mr. Burgh ... or whether that bill fell to the citizens of Indiana, many of whom cannot afford attorneys for important matters. It really doesn't take a judge(s) to know that "pavement" can be considered a deadly weapon. It only takes a brain and some education or thought. I'm glad to see the conviction was upheld although sorry to see that the asphalt could even be considered "an issue".

  2. In response to bryanjbrown: thank you for your comment. I am familiar with Paul Ogden (and applaud his assistance to Shirley Justice) and have read of Gary Welsh's (strange) death (and have visited his blog on many occasions). I am not familiar with you (yet). I lived in Kosciusko county, where the sheriff was just removed after pleading in what seems a very "sweetheart" deal. Unfortunately, something NEEDS to change since the attorneys won't (en masse) stand up for ethics (rather making a show to please the "rules" and apparently the judges). I read that many attorneys are underemployed. Seems wisdom would be to cull the herd and get rid of the rotting apples in practice and on the bench, for everyone's sake as well as justice. I'd like to file an attorney complaint, but I have little faith in anything (other than the most flagrant and obvious) resulting in action. My own belief is that if this was medicine, there'd be maimed and injured all over and the carnage caused by "the profession" would be difficult to hide. One can dream ... meanwhile, back to figuring out to file a pro se "motion to dismiss" as well as another court required paper that Indiana is so fond of providing NO resources for (unlike many other states, who don't automatically assume that citizens involved in the court process are scumbags) so that maybe I can get the family law attorney - whose work left me with no settlement, no possessions and resulted in the death of two pets (etc ad nauseum) - to stop abusing the proceedings supplemental and small claims rules and using it as a vehicle for harassment and apparently, amusement.

  3. Been on social security sense sept 2011 2massive strokes open heart surgery and serious ovarian cancer and a blood clot in my lung all in 14 months. Got a letter in may saying that i didn't qualify and it was in form like i just applied ,called social security she said it don't make sense and you are still geting a check in june and i did ,now i get a check from my part D asking for payment for july because there will be no money for my membership, call my prescription coverage part D and confirmed no check will be there.went to social security they didn't want to answer whats going on just said i should of never been on it .no one knows where this letter came from was California im in virginia and been here sense my strokes and vcu filed for my disability i was in the hospital when they did it .It's like it was a error . My ,mothers social security was being handled in that office in California my sister was dealing with it and it had my social security number because she died last year and this letter came out of the same office and it came at the same time i got the letter for my mother benefits for death and they had the same date of being typed just one was on the mail Saturday and one on Monday. . I think it's a mistake and it should been fixed instead there just getting rid of me .i never got a formal letter saying when i was being tsken off.

  4. Employers should not have racially discriminating mind set. It has huge impact on the society what the big players do or don't do in the industry. Background check is conducted just to verify whether information provided by the prospective employee is correct or not. It doesn't have any direct combination with the rejection of the employees. If there is rejection, there should be something effective and full-proof things on the table that may keep the company or the people associated with it in jeopardy.

  5. Unlike the federal judge who refused to protect me, the Virginia State Bar gave me a hearing. After the hearing, the Virginia State Bar refused to discipline me. VSB said that attacking me with the court ADA coordinator had, " all the grace and charm of a drive-by shooting." One does wonder why the VSB was able to have a hearing and come to that conclusion, but the federal judge in Indiana slammed the door of the courthouse in my face.

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